These photos and stories reveal what childhood was like before U.S. labor laws.



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For centuries in the United States, child labor was all too common.

Despite efforts from educators to encourage primary school, an immigration boom in the latter half of the 19th century resulted in a new pool of child workers. The influx of low-earning, compliant young laborers coincided with the rapid expansion of industrial positions in mills and factories.

Children worked long hours, often in cramped, dangerous conditions, to help support their families.

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

At the turn of the 20th century, social reformers took aim at child labor.

The National Child Labor Committee used photography to bring attention to the children’s abysmal working conditions and push for reform at the state level.

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

These are just a few of the more than 5,000 images available from the Library of Congress. The images and captions from photographer Lewis W. Hine provide some insight and clarity into the experiences of the children themselves, who grew up way too soon.

Small and babyfaced. Black and white. On farms and in factories. From coast to coast. Here are 14 of their stories.

1. Lalar Blanton, 10, sneaks a glimpse outside during her shift at the Rhodes Manufacturing Co. in Lincolnton, North Carolina. (1908)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee /Library of Congress.

2. This 16-year-old in Fort Worth, Texas, works seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. as a messenger and newsboy. He earns $15-$18 a week. (1913)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee /Library of Congress.

3. Boys reset pins at the Arcade Bowling Alley in Trenton, New Jersey. The boys work until after midnight. Sometimes, kids selling concessions work late too, but mostly during baseball season. (1909)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

4. A few boys join the men working as oyster shuckers in Apalachicola, Florida. (1909)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

5. A little girl in Hoboken, New Jersey, tends a corner newspaper stand. She’s unable to tell the photographer her name or age. (1912)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

6. These young boys help their family strip tobacco in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They frequently miss school to help with the arduous process. (1916)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

7. This young spinner in Roanoke, Virginia, told the photographer she was 14. He said, “It is doubtful.” (1911)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

8. Elwood Palmer Cooper, 7, has already worked for a year on this miller’s wagon in Wilmington, Delaware. He carries 25-pound bags of flour from the wagon to stores to earn 25 cents a week in spending money. (1910)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

9. 6-year-old Warren Frakes of Comanche County, Oklahoma, picked 41 pounds of cotton yesterday. He has about 20 pounds in his bag right now. (1916)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

10. Daisy Langford, 8, is in her first season at a cannery in Seaford, Delaware. She’s having a difficult time keeping up, placing caps on the cans at the rate of 40 per minute. (1910)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

11. A child assists a glass blower in Grafton, West Virginia. He works nine hours a day in this cramped position. Next week, he’s on the night shift. (1908)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

12. Frank is 14, but he’s helped his father in the mines for three years. He spent some time in the hospital after his leg was crushed by a coal car. (1906)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

13. After selling into the night, 12-year-old Antoinette Siminger of Cincinnati is nearly out of baskets. “Basket! Five cents each!” she shouts. (1908)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

14. It’s a cold February day in Utica, New York, but these newsies are still selling papers. (1910)

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

It took the Great Depression and years of advocacy to substantially do away with child labor.

Following the economic downtown and so many people facing unemployment, jobs once held by children were opened up to adults. Soon, new technology mechanized jobs once reserved for small hands. And these new tools required semi-skilled adults at the helm.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 finally placed limits on child labor and set a national minimum wage for the first time. Just over a decade later, the law was amended to include agriculture, transportation, and communications businesses. Finally, most children in the U.S. were out of the workplace and into the classroom.

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

While child labor is no longer commonplace in the U.S., the problem persists around the world.

Over 100 million children still work in hazardous conditions on farms, in mines, and in domestic positions. Many are exposed to toxic substances and harmful chemicals, and they aren’t given the chance to go to school.

Some countries have have made small advancements through legislation and public awareness, but the fight for millions of lost childhoods continues.

A boy in India loads bricks onto a horse cart. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

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Thumbnail photo by Lewis Wickes Hine for the National Child Labor Committee/Library of Congress.

There are lots of organizations working to end child labor around the world. Check out what UNICEF is doing to put an end to the practice.





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